Government Shutdown

Should I stay or should I go?

stylized professionals

Federal guidelines don't explicitly define who qualifies as "essential" and "non-essential" IT personnel, allowing agencies to use their discretion to decide who would stay on and who would be furloughed in the event of a government shutdown.

Because every agency has different responsibilities, having a hard and fast set of definitions could cause more problems than having one that's too broad or narrow to be useful.

Deciding who was -- to put it officially -- "excepted," or "non-excepted," was confusing in the last shutdown. Federal IT operations have only grown more complicated since then.

One former GSA employee who worked in IT contracting during the last government shutdown in late 1995 and early 1996 told FCW that at the time he was given conflicting instructions on whether he should stay or go home. At first he said he was told to stay because that agency was going to stay open, only to be told later by a top manager to leave because he was non-excepted.

That kind of ambiguity looms again for federal IT workers. Which category an IT employee falls into depends on agencies and their individual managers, with guidance from the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management.

OMB has issued a blanket statement ahead of the Oct. 1 start of fiscal 2014 that said it "strongly believes a lapse in appropriations" won't occur, but "prudent management requires that the government plan for the possibility of a lapse and OMB is working with agencies to take appropriate action."

"Agencies are still in the process of reviewing relevant legal requirements and updating their plans," said a Sept. 25 statement from OMB press secretary Emily Cain. "Determinations about specific programs are being actively reviewed as agencies undertake this process."

Bottom line, if personnel aren't responsible for lives, health matters or security, they'll probably be non-excepted, according to the guidelines. Even those who have been designated "emergency employees" by an agency to help handle severe weather conditions, power failures, interruption of public transportation and other day-to-day- difficulties aren't automatically exempt from furlough.

OMB's guidelines said agency legal counsels working with senior managers are determining which employees are designated to handle excepted and non-excepted functions.

As a result, a shutdown for IT workers can be a mixed bag, depending greatly on what agency they work for.

The Department of Agriculture, for instance, probably has far fewer IT employees who fit the necessary "life, health and security" parameters than, say, an intelligence or federal law enforcement agency.

Agencies that might be missing an ample portion of their IT workforce if a shutdown occurs could be headed into unknown territory during and after, since many now common IT functions weren't around in 1996. An IT manager FCW talked with expressed concern over how cloud services contracts would be affected by a shut down and about the welfare of ongoing big data computing projects, including those at federal research facilities that collect data continuously and need looking after.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Fri, Sep 27, 2013 TestPilot DC

What if Congress had pay for performance, would they get busy and create a budget that we can live with? Would they tolerate 21 hour filibusters? With today's technology, 'the people' can vote on their own balanced budget and get rid of congress.

Fri, Sep 27, 2013 No Longer Amused

Look. This process is happening for many reasons but the key reason is there IS no budget proposal that has been submitted on time and any such proposal, when worked through committee gets stalled over partisan politics. Add to that the gross overspending on entitlements as mentioned, the supposed unlimited supply of money available, (debt ceiling, there is not debt according to some in D.C.) Agencies that are writing new regulations without oversight or cotrols (EPA, FCC, and others) that are severely impacting any economic recovery...and the n the Trillions upon Billions of dollars spent for stimulus grants etc to try and create jobs, to generate taxes, to pay fo rthe governemnt....the poeple are really getting fed up with the arrogance from the leadership of the federal "elites" from the Whitehouse on down. Bloated budgets, inept and inflexible processes and regulations that prevent cost effective solutions from being used, as well as ill informed management and elected officials has caused this. No one party or branch bears total blame, it is spread equally across the entire spectrum of party, position, elected or appointed.....

Fri, Sep 27, 2013 PJ Work in DC for government

Dear Congress, Please do your jobs so we can continue to do ours. You are costing us tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in wasted time and effort JUST TO PLAN for this shutdown. Not to mention the financial impact on the tens of thousands of federal employees and contractors who rely on their income to pay their mortgages, electricity, etc. And think of all the hundreds of millions of already appropriated monies that will not be spent should there be a shutdown....this is shameful in so many ways, it almost makes me not proud to be an American, and to have been a part of voting you idiots into power. Please get this right so we can continue to be the most powerful country in the world? Otherwise, I foresee big trouble ahead.

Fri, Sep 27, 2013

I think it is inexcusable that some of Congress is using the funding of Obamacare as the main reason for not passing the budget. The healthcare law has been passed and in place. I don’t see how “they” can sleep, eat, etc. Our government has no problem sending trillions of dollars over seas to help people, but don’t want to fund a law to help the citizens in their county. Again, Congress does not care about the American people.

Fri, Sep 27, 2013 Puregoldj Bethesda, MD

Congress needs to grow up and start behaving like responsible adults. Do they think it helps the economy to have possibly hundreds of thousands of Federal and contractor workers losing pay? Or not having government work done? They take enough vacation that it would certainly seem they are not essential; especially since they don't do their primary job, which is to PASS A BUDGET. We have had the sequester in since March. While this was designed to be so painful and absurd that Congress would have every incentive to do their job and pass a budget, now that the sequester is in place, nobody seems particularly inspired to get it lifted. Although our budget deficit has been reduced to its lowest level in a decade, do they really think this is saving money? Actually, it isn't. What we have is a large number of government projects in progress that have been cut, thereby forcing vendors into inefficient production or operational levels, which in the end costs the government (i.e., the tax payers) a lot more. We now know that the only way the sequester will work is if Congress doesn't pass a real budget (i.e., do their job), they don't get paid.

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